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Solving for India: Five startups tackling social problems

Forbes India, July 5, 2016

By Harichandan Arakali

Prevention is Better

Forus Health

Vertical: Biomedical devices
Founded: 2010
Business model: Revenue from sale of biomedical products, and from recurring subscription for cloud-based technology platform for remote diagnosis
Investors include: IDG Ventures, Accel Partners, Asian Health Fund
Impact: Retinal eye imaging device benefitted 2 million people in 25 countries, bringing affordable early detection of preventable blindness to places with low access to healthcare
Funds raised: $13 million
Status: Expanding into new products; projected to be profitable in the current fiscal year.

A talk on preventable blindness during his stint with Philips compelled K Chandrasekhar to quit his job and look for solutions

K Chandrasekhar has built a business around an innovative product to improve early detection of preventable blindness. The effort started in Bengaluru, but has now benefited people in 25 countries and counting.

Chandrasekhar says he first heard about preventable blindness when a specialist from the Aravind Eye Hospital chain visited Philips India, where he was director of strategy for the company’s semiconductor unit (NXP Semiconductors). The visit was part of an event titled ‘India Business Incubation’ that brought together experienced people from different walks of life to talk about their work. That talk, in 2005, on preventable blindness stayed with Chandrasekhar and, four years later, he was ready to quit his job and do something about it. He decided to build a simple, portable eye scanner and Forus Health was started in January 2010.

Later that year, Shyam Vasudev, who was Chandrasekhar’s friend and colleague at Philips India, also joined him as co-founder. Vasudev had been the technical director for the health care unit at Philips India, and the collective yet diverse experience proved critical. Vasudev is also a gold medallist in embedded systems engineering from the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, and Chandrasekhar is a graduate of the global manager programme at IIM-Kolkata.

“In addition to the financial and economic impact of blindness, we also understood the emotional impact, how a person’s own family treats him or her as a liability,” Chandrasekhar tells Forbes India. He went deeper into the subject, started going to the Aravind hospitals, and discovered there were about 20,000 ophthalmologists in India for a country of a billion people. That is almost like one ophthalmologist for every 60,000 to 65,000 people and even then, most of them would only be found in the cities. “So villages will be really deprived.”

He couldn’t do much about the number of doctors, but with his deep knowledge as an engineer, Chandrasekhar realised he could build something that would help preventive screening. “Eradicating preventable blindness is the mission,” he says of Forus Health, and the medical devices he built were more a consequence.

Forus has also managed to crack an important problem—to get people to accept and use the product. Initially, they did this by demonstrating their retinal screener: It worked well, and cost far less than imported scanners aimed at large hospitals. From the very first model the company built, called 3Nethra, the screener was portable enough for a pillion rider on a bike to carry it. So it could be taken from vi llage to village.

Second, the device was easy enough for a class 10 graduate to operate. The images from the screener can be sent to an ophthalmologist in a digital format for viewing on his or her smartphone. From 2011, when the first commercial model was launched in the Indian market, the screener has seen iterations, with improvements and additional features being added and multiple models created.

Forus raised $5 million in 2012 from IDG Ventures and Accel Partners, and another $8 million the following year, with both investors participating in addition to the Asia Health Fund. The money helped the company start building a more comprehensive set of technology applications—both software and medical devices—that is now ready to function as a cloud computing-based remote medical diagnosis platform. The platform will also function as a service and could accelerate its revenue growth in the coming years.

The eye-imaging device sells for between Rs 5 lakh and Rs 6 lakh; Forus also has another revenue stream from the recurring annual subscription—in the range of Rs 20,000-25,000 per year per device—that the health care providers pay for its cloud-based software and storage for the purposes of remote diagnosis. The privately-held company declined to comment on revenues, but is on track to becoming profitable in the current fiscal that ends March 2017.

The eye scanner itself has been installed in 1,100 hospitals as well as diagnostics labs, diabetics treatment clinics—as diabetes-related blindness is an important factor—and the Aravind Eye Hospitals. The screener is now used in 25 countries and around two million people have benefited from its use.